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Taking hip shots at HIPA

Today a great debate broke out on internet about the Grand winner of the HIPA awards, following the release of the $120,000-winning image by Chinese photographer Fuyang Zhou. Zhou, who does not read or write English according to our good friend ‘on the ground’ in Dubai Martin Grahame-Dunn, may be unaware of the accusations levelled at him.

Update March 21st: see comments. The controversy over whether the image has been Photoshopped has been added to as it turns out the image is from a staged ‘classroom’ set up for visiting photographers, and well-known to the Chinese photo community. However, charges are made and the funds raised do genuinely support eduction in the village involved. HIPA has subsequently issued a statement confirming examination of the raw files for the contest winners, and supporting the judges’ choice.

See this page:

The HIPA Awards like most today outlaw manipulation and alteration of images, though they seem quite happy with images showing powerfully manipulated structure and tones. What you are not supposed to do is Photoshop an image to add or remove elements.

Fuyang Zhou received his award on March 17th. By March 18th, versions of the winning image were appearing on-line, and on March 19th PetaPixel published a blog page about the possible Photoshop work apparently visible on the right arm of the teacher.

With prize money totaling $389,000, HIPA is the richest photography competition in the world, the Hamdan International Photography Awards (HIPA) were launched in 2011 by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai. Clearly they don’t want to fall into this kind of mess, along with criticism of the judging panel and random snipes at the photographer or the entire concept of the image.

The competition received more than 26,000 entries from 156 countries, including India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia and the Russian Federation, as well as countries in the United Arab Emirates – but only one Grand Prize could be given of $120,000. The sheer level of this prize makes the controversy quite heated.


Here is the winning image.

Here is a clip from the 2000 x 3000 size original repro file issued by the awards press office:


The claim is that the teacher’s chalking arm is Photoshopped in, and it’s true that the arm looks pretty odd. The teacher seems to have a brown cloth draped over his loose khaki coloured shirt sleeve, and we think this could be a rag or cloth used for erasing the chalk writing on the mud wall. It’s got a colour which matched the idea of rubbing that wall. After all, he must have a rag or eraser to be able to use the wall as a blackboard.

However, all kinds of experts have emerged to claim that the arm is anatomically impossible, the wrong position, the wrong angle, the wrong length, that the hand is the wrong size and so on. Photography is an odd art and the camera lens is not the human eye. It can catch actions and positions from angles we do not usually see.

In this case, the 24mm lens of Zhou’s Canon EOS 1D-X camera is clearly positioned just above the height of the table on the left, which appears to be waist height or a kneeling or squatting view. The teacher is being seen from below, not from eye level; the camera has been taken down to the height of these kids, who look to be five or six years old, when sitting. That’s one of the merits of the picture; the photographer has placed the camera at pupil height, so we see the classroom just as they do. The 24mm lens actually has the same focal length as the human eye, so regardless of its angle of view or format used, this lens always conveys a visual perspective matching our ‘live’ experience. From child height, the kids look big, the teacher looks tall but distant.

So, is the arm a physical impossibility?

To test this, I did the only thing I could. I set up a camera at what seems to be the right height, and stood (too close if anything) and shot with a 16mm lens on APS-C, draping some background over my shoulder and copying the teacher’s pose. I took a few shots with my hand holding the camera’s remote control in different positions (some were much too high, though it never seemed I was raising my hand above my head, in the shots it was well above head height due to the angle). I got one shot which was a very good match for the position of the hand on the body, the position of the writing arm, head and torso.


All I wante to show was what I suspected – that the hand is not in an impossible position, the arm is not growing out of the wrong part of the body, and even if the sleeve and drapes in the original look decidedly strange once someone makes you look hard at them, they could actually be just a straight shot. I reserve judgment as I see some signs in the very poor quality press file of possible retouching. But by dropping my shot over the competition winner and ghosting the layer, it was easy enough to see what given the normal variations of human posture and build along with camera angle and lighting the original image is not necessary proven to be a Photoshopped composite with an arm added in the wrong place.

This is not my argument; unlike some, I like the picture. I like the tones, the light, and the story told. I can persuade myself to see it with an Eastern eye, and read it from my right to my left, even though the teacher is showing the children Western roman-based letters. We tend to forget that in Europe even the greatest Renaissance painters tended to put their light to the left of the picture, as we view it, and to compose allowing our eyes to start at the top left and wander across and down the image. They did this, as painters and photographers still do, because that is how we learn to read and how we scan a page. Arabic readers scan a page in the precisely the reverse direction left to right, and Chinese language-group readers may also be more used to reading in downward scans from the top.

The spread of English and other Western languages worldwide has made non-American, non-European photographers far more flexible in how they compose pictures, with a greater ability to ‘read’ from different directions across the frame. This picture brings the eye in from our right hand side to rest in the left hand darker area but naturally move back to the brighter subjects, and tends to keep you studying it as a result.

The theme of the competition was ‘Creating the Future’ and no-one can argue with the fit of this image to that theme.

Until a proper high-quality file larger than the 6 megapixel version issued is seen, it’s impossible to come to any conclusions. It is a fairly noisy ISO 3200 shot taken at 1/30th and f/4 with the 24mm Canon f/1.4 USM II lens. If retouching was used, there’s no apparent effect on the noise structure. Other may analyse the image and conclude either way.


This is the black (K) channel only from the released CMYK file. You can see the edge of the cloak or blanket, and the form of the cloth draped round outside the sleeve on the teacher’s arm. You can see the enlarged patten of the noise and other artefacts. Let’s hope the outcome of this debate is not skewed by knee-jerk reactions.

– David Kilpatrick

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9 Responses to “Taking hip shots at HIPA”

  1. Stephen Power Says:

    Come on, David don’t elbow him out for Photoshop work. It’s ‘armless.

    The real point though is that without goign itno as much detail as you did, it seems to ne like pretty bad Photoshopping. The judges should probably have rejected the image more on the poor quality of the post processing, than the fact that it was done at all, in my view.

    If you’re going to use digital enhancement, at least do it well.

  2. David Kilpatrick Says:

    The issue is also that no-one can be sure there is any bad Photoshopping involved. It may look like it, but then the photo of a Scottish MP appearing to give a Heil Hitler gesture looks that way (recently) when actually it was a combination of the camera angle and an extended arm!

  3. Stephen Power Says:

    Either his arm normally extends from his chest, or it’s bad Photoshopping. My money is on the latter. 🙂

  4. David Kilpatrick Says:

    My overlaid shot where I copied the post actually shows my arm extending higher up – even more from the chest – visually. He’s got a bundle of fabric in the crook of his elbow too. It looks very much like bad retouching or a bad attempt at a composite, but I’m going evens on the possibility it is just a peculiar result of an unretouched shot. It has been commented, already, that if it looks so odd it doesn’t matter whether it is NIOT shopped, it should not have won such a major award when most viewers are quickly distracted by what looks to be an unnatural detail.

  5. Kerri-Jo Says:

    Thanks David for doing that test!! I believe it’s an original single image. I was so disappointed to read that it was photoshopped so now I am happy again!! It’s an amazing image and tells such a strong story. I want to know more!!! Congratulations to the image maker.

  6. Peter Says:

    The whole thing was staged and fake. It is a photo about a fake classroom in a mountain where many Chinese photographers go to to take “moving” education picture (see ) . You don’t need to understand any Chinese to tell the winning photo was taken just like other similar photos in the quoted link. In fact, after seeing the news of the award, while applauding the kindness of your Contest judging committee, photographers all over China are ashamed of the winning photographyer 周抚阳 (Wuyang Zhou?) because he fabricated the scene and distorted the education environment to win an award. People are calling this an International Joke (国际玩笑: the last few Chinese words in the first paragraph in

  7. Stephen Power Says:

    I have also started to wonder (before reading the post above) if I haven’t actually seen this image in the past – and by that I mean several years ago.

  8. el Says:

    so while many a PS guru on forums all over the place were pontificating on their belief re digital manipulation of an arm, the reality is the whole actual scene was manipulated. But a question springs to mind . . . is the fact it was staged enough to disqualify it from the competition according to the competition’s rules? If yes, then disqualify it. If no, . . .

  9. Shoeb Faruquee Says:

    We respects always competition rules and judges decisions. Some organizer like Trirenberg Super Circit in Austria encourage Photoshop. As per as I know HIPA rules not allow this and they want originality /new image specially for HIPA Contest. Winning Imaging concept, situation is very nice. But I personally hate bad photoshoping like the winning image teachers abnormal arm. I don`t understand why photographer done this and destroy the good image. I think HIPA team review it again. Long live HIPA. Many thanks for resourceful article .

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